29 September 2013

Ursula K. Le Guin - Deposedații

in Bucharest, Romania

Ursula K. Le Guin - DeposedatiiÎn ultima lună am călătorit mai mult decât de obicei și n‑am mai găsit timp de scris recenzii, așa că am ceva de recuperat. Au trecut deja mai mult de șase săptămâni de când am terminat de citit Deposedații, dar n‑ar trebui să fie greu să vorbesc despre ea, de vreme ce e deja a treia oară când o citesc cu aceeași plăcere ca la început. Premisa este destul de simplă: într‑un alt sistem solar din vecinătate, Tau Ceti, planeta Urras este populată de o rasă inteligentă foarte asemănătoare cu oamenii. Spre deosebire de Pământ, Urras are o Lună mult mai mare, Anarres, cu atmosferă și viață proprie, chiar dacă mult mai aridă decât planeta vecină. În urmă cu câteva generații, o grupare anarhistă, odonienii, au ales exilul pe lună pentru a încerca să creeze acolo societatea liberă imaginată de Odo, la adăpost de persecuția statelor naționale. Cele două lumi au evoluat de atunci independent, relațiile dintre ele fiind reduse la schimburi comerciale regulate, minereuri rare de pe Anarres fiind schimbate pe mașini și produse complexe greu de fabricat de comunitatea mai mică și înapoiată tehnologic. În acest context se naște pe Anarres Shevek, a cărui minte genială se face remarcată încă din copilărie, când încearcă să explice colegilor de școală ceea ce noi numim paradoxul lui Zenon.

Narațiunea în sine are o structură aparte, viața lui Shevek fiind împărțită într‑o serie de capitole care nu sunt prezentate cronologic, ci alternează între adolescența și tinerețea pe Anarres și călătoria pe Urras la vârsta maturității. Eu unul am citit‑o odată și cronologic, parcurgând întâi capitolele pare, apoi pe cele impare, dar ordinea autoarei are totuși o anumită semnificație. La această citire recentă am observat paralele între episoade alăturate, în ciuda distanței temporale și cadrului diferit; un alt avantaj este că astfel romanul capătă ciclicitate, începând cu îmbarcarea lui Shevek pe transportul către Urras pentru a se termina cu revenirea lui pe Anarres.

Dacă poți vedea un lucru în întregul său, spuse el, pare întotdeauna frumos. Planete, vieți… Dar de aproape, o lume se dovedește numai pământ și pietre. Și de la o zi la alta, viața se dovedește grea, obosești, pierzi sensul. Ai nevoie de distanțare, de interval. Pentru a vedea cât de frumos este pământul trebuie să‑l vezi ca pe lună. Pentru a vedea cât de frumoasă este viața, trebuie s‑o faci din perspectiva favorizantă a morții.

26 September 2013

The Online Photographer: “Open Mike: Simple Cameras”

Canon IXUS 255 HS black

But camera manufacturers don't seem constitutionally capable of making a super-simple camera. They must be deeply convinced that the complexity of the feature set (which certainly does appeal to a lot of us) is an indivisible part of how they add value to their product, and the temptation to add more and more is something they can't forswear even for one product. I mean, with hundreds of cameras on the market, wouldn't you think they could make one that was super-simple, just for that segment of the population that wants it? And market it that way. You'd think. But no.

I think it's one of the "stealth reasons" why cellphones are encroaching on the camera market so rapidly. Not the only reason, not the main reason, but a reason. (I also think that as cameraphones gain an ever-enlarging share of the camera market, the cameras in them will inexorably get more complicated.)

Mike Johnston

I’m quite surprised to see this theory coming from a large photo blog. Haven’t they ever heard of ’s IXUS line – or PowerShot SD/ELPH in the US?! It’s compact, has basically only two buttons (the On-Off switch and the shutter; you can largely ignore the other settings and still get great photos), and recent models have touchscreens and Wi-Fi, enabling them to share images directly on the web without downloading them to a PC. The iPhone camera is not that much simpler if you look at the recent additions: Panorama, HDR, square mode, filters, etc.

The real problem with compact cameras is that, no matter how small and convenient, you won’t carry them around with you all the time. On the other hand your smartphone is always in your pocket, ready to snap a quick shot at a party, a spontaneous scene on the street or a lovely sunset. Even if the quality is poorer – which is not really the case anymore – the smartphone will win over a dedicated camera by just being there when you need it.

Tech.pinions: “Windows Phone And Android Hate”

I want Windows Phone to succeed. More than that, I want Android to fail. I hate Android.

There, I said it. Yes, I am a market analyst, detached, and I have absolutely no stake in the success or failure, rise or fall, of either Microsoft or Google, $MSFT or $GOOG, or Apple, for that matter. I simply do not like Android. I refuse to hide this fact.

I think Android is a pale, poorly executed imitation of Apple’s iOS. I have real concerns about the ethics of Google’s ex-CEO as he simultaneously served on Apple’s board. Google’s scale and de facto search monopoly allow it to undercut competition and stifle innovation in local-mobile services. That’s no good. I can’t stand the way they use terms like “open” the way fast food chains label yesterday’s hamburgers as “fresh.”

Brian S Hall

Love that last sentence.

25 September 2013

Native Blogger comments updated with Google+ look

After introducing Google+ comments a couple of months ago, the team got around to updating the native commenting system with buttons and colors inspired by ’s new design. I have no idea when the change was actually launched, since I was on vacation abroad for the past week-and-a-half, but judging from some tweets it probably happened during the last 24h. It’s a good sign that Blogger still supports the old comment system and implicitly recognizes that not everyone wants to switch to Google+ comments with their current limitations. Also, the new comment box now spans the entire width of the post, whereas previously it was constrained to something like 500px width. On the other hand the one-size-fits-all design doesn’t quite match Blogger themes and since the comment form is displayed through an iframe it’s nearly impossible to customize. It would be a nice for the comments box to match the overall look of the blog, at least inheriting the color scheme, but I don’t see this happening anytime soon. Blogger new design for embedded comments

14 September 2013

Wired Science: “Why Are Some People So Smart? The Answer Could Spawn a Generation of Superbabies”

This is an idea that makes us incredibly uncomfortable. People don’t like to talk about IQ, because it undermines their notion of equality, Detterman says. We think every person is equal to every other, and we like to take credit for our own accomplishments. You are where you are because you worked hard. The very idea of the American dream is undermined by the notion that some people might be born more likely to succeed. Even if we accept that intelligence is heritable, any effort to improve or even understand the inheritance process strikes us as distasteful, even ghoulish, suggesting the rise of designer superbabies. And given the fallout that sometimes results when academics talk about intelligence as a quantifiable concept—such as the case of Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who in 2006 resigned after suggesting that science is male-dominated due not to discrimination but to a shortage of high-IQ women—it’s no surprise that IQ research is not a popular subject these days at Western universities.

But in his lab at BGI, 21-year-old Zhao has no such squeamishness. He waves it away as irrational, making a comparison with height: Some people are tall and some are short, he says. Three years into the project, a team of four geneticists is crunching an initial batch of 2,000 DNA samples from high-IQ subjects, searching for where their genomes differ from the norm. Soon Zhao plans to get thousands more through Renmin—his former high school—as well as from other sources around the world. He believes that intelligence has a genetic recipe and that given enough samples—and enough time—his team will find it. John Bohannon

Indeed, some people are tall and some are short, just like some are more intelligent than others. But in selecting for embryos with higher IQ you are actually making a judgment that ‘more intelligent’ is somehow better than ‘less intelligent’ – just like a century ago a group in Germany started believing that light-haired people are superior to dark-haired people.

Ethical view aside, IQ is still a controversial measure of intelligence; trying to understand it will likely yield interesting results, but I think enhancing IQ by selecting the right embryos should wait at least until the process is better understood. Since brain functions are influenced by a wide range of genes, selecting some in the detriment of others could easily have adverse effects; the article itself mentions a possible correlation between higher IQ and Asperger’s syndrome.

12 September 2013

GigaOm: “What I like and what I don’t like about the new Apple iPhones”

The 5C? Color me not impressed

Given its recent past, there are three design elements & emotions that I associate with Apple products — brushed metal, understated look and blending of monochromatic colors. Apple products signify a certain amount of luxury and lushness to them. The iPhone 5c doesn’t have any of that. The phones are garish to my eyes but then, as I said, I am a black-white-gray-maybe-blue kinda guy. They feel “budget” to me and the pastel color palette is a little meh. The iPhone 5c is slippery to hold and attracts fingerprints smudges. From my perspective it is missing the luxury feeling. The iPods with color have a more lush feel than these phones crafted from plastic, or polycarbonate as Apple defines it. Om Malik

My impression exactly. The colors of the 5C’s look watered down and, yes, cheap, compared to the rich, vivid colors on the Lumia line. I would certainly not be buying one. And don’t get me started on those new cases!

Instagram Blog: “Instagram Today: 150 Million People”

Today we’re excited to announce that Instagram has grown to a community of more than 150 million people capturing and sharing moments every month. […]

As the community continues to grow, it’s becoming more global too – now more than 60% of you are from outside the United States. Whether you’re in Moscow or Hong Kong, Berlin or Reykjavik, we’re more committed than ever to bringing you the best Instagram experience possible. Instagram Blog

I have also recently created an Instagram profile, mainly to follow a couple of interesting people recommended by Om Malik on his personal blog. But I haven’t uploaded any photos yet and I don’t think I will be very active there – I only visit the app once every couple of days and I finish browsing new photos in a matter of minutes. As with , with which Instagram shares the public nature of posts and the asymmetric follower model, the active user numbers would be much more relevant.

11 September 2013

Wired Design: “Oyster - A Gorgeous New App Offering Unlimited Books for $9.95 a Month”

By now, we’ve all gotten pretty used to not owning stuff—at least in the traditional, hold-it-in-your-hands sense. If you’re anything like me, your DVD collection stopped growing a few years back once Netflix and Hulu bolstered their offerings. And that CD storage stand (hell, even your iTunes account) has probably gathered dust thanks to Spotify and Rdio. But books? Turns out, we’re still content to pay $10 for a paperless novel that we’re not even certain we’ll like or finish. The publishing industry is among the last holdouts in the ongoing transition from owning media to accessing it through a monthly service, but that’s about to change with the launch of Oyster, an app released today for the iPhone that’s looking to transform the way you read and pay for books.

Maybe you’ve heard that claim before. Kindle does have its lending library, and your local library already allows you to digitally check out books. But when I say Oyster is different, that’s because it is. For $9.95 a month you get unlimited access to more than 100,000 titles, and according to the founders, that number is growing daily. You can jump from Jessica Alba (yes, Jessica Alba wrote a book) to Charles Bukowski with the same ease of shuffling from Katy Perry to J Dilla on Spotify. There’s no pressure to finish either since users can add as many books as they’d like to their reading list, and the last 10 opened will instantly be downloaded for offline reading. Liz Stinson

I’m all for new monetization models for e-books, but a good designed iPhone-only app is only a small start. Entering the book market is not an easy task, even for a huge company like Apple. The number of titles is meaningless if some publishers are not in and if the service doesn’t have rights for new releases; that would mean you have to purchase the rest of the titles elsewhere. Also, an iPhone-only app cannot hope to compete with Amazon’s platform, available pretty-much everywhere. I suspect it will either get acquired by a bigger company or simply crushed when Amazon or Apple will offer their own subscription services.

07 September 2013

furbo.org: “Fingerprints”

It looks like my hunch about the iPhone invite was right: new phones are likely to have “silver rings” that are fingerprint sensors embedded into the home button.

So what does this mean? Most people assume that it’s just going to be easier to access your home screen (without entering a passcode.) But I think it goes much deeper than that.

Craig Hockenberry

On the one hand: many cool opportunities for new technologies and better experience – I was thinking for example that this could also be used by your bank to authenticate you for mobile payments. Or to lock and erase an iOS device if you don’t come into contact with it for some specified period of time.

On the other: your fingerprint(s) will get onto Apple’s servers and from there quite possible to the US government

Update: Officially Apple says that user fingerprints will be encrypted and will not be available to third parties.

06 September 2013

The Verge: “Google’s Trojan horse: how Chrome Apps will finally take on Windows”

At launch, Google says that more than 50 Chrome Apps are available in the Chrome Web Store. While big-name developers aren't on board yet, the selection does at least show the potential for Chrome to grow into a legitimate platform. Pixlr Touch Up offers basic photo editing that wasn't native on Chrome before. Task-management app Wunderlist is slick and works outside of the browser window. Perhaps the best of the bunch is Pocket, which makes links you save while browsing the web available offline. Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Wow, a whole 50 apps (it’s actually more like 25 by my count)! And people say Windows Phone has too few apps to succeed!

But hey, let’s not pick on the quantity, surely these must be top-quality-must-have-apps for any user, right?! Well, there’s a couple of games, two apps for drawing diagrams and flowcharts, a bunch of to-do apps, a weather app… Not what I would call big diversity. It’s nice that they’re addressing productivity, but how many times does the average user need to draw a diagram? Also, most of these are better suited for mobile and/or always-connected use: you want your tasks and weather apps by your side wherever you go and always up-to-date, you want fresh content from The Economist and the hottest photos from 500px. What good is a reminder if it fires up when you’re away from the PC? There’s nothing here that can’t be already done with native apps, either mobile or desktop. Trojan horse? More like a Trojan mouse!

05 September 2013

A follow-up on Office 2013

Earlier this year I wrote a rather lengthy article about the changes in Office 2013. Back then the software on my PC was still in the preview phase, so some bugs and small issues were unavoidable. But have they been fixed in the final release? I was planning to write this follow-up for some time, so there it goes…

Office 2013 Theme selectionThe install process was a bit of a disappointment, as it required removing the preview version and installing everything fresh – thus loosing most of the settings and customizations. The most annoying part was evidently adding my email accounts in Outlook again. Otherwise some of the minor issues I noticed back then have been ironed out: the old Outlook icons have been updated to match the new style and the entire suite now has three color themes that make the flat ribbon more eye-friendly – I chose ‘Dark Grey’ from the beginning and never looked back. The theme selection is located in Backstage view under Account.

04 September 2013

TIME: “Amazon’s New Kindle Paperwhite Is a Really, Really Refined E-Reader”

This year, the Kindle Paperwhite becomes obsolete on September 30. Or, more precisely, that’s the day that the Paperwhite I liked so much gets replaced by a new one with the same snappy name. Amazon briefed me on the upcoming model today, and I got a bit of time to try it out. Harry McCracken

Over the past month or so I’ve been going back and forth trying to decide if I should buy a Paperwhite to replace my older Kindle, so naturally now I’m glad I waited. A colleague also mentioned they were no longer available on the site, usually a good sign that a new model is coming. Even if the hardware improvements are mostly incremental over last year’s model (you may call it the “Paperwhite S”), it would be a big step forward from a Kindle Keyboard. The biggest update is arguably on the services side, Kindle MatchBook being one of the most common requests from Amazon’s long-time customers. For people outside the US though it’s not nearly as significant; I for one am more excited about GoodReads being integrated into the software, even if it only works while the reader is connected to the Internet – something I rarely do, only about once a week to download new books and articles.

03 September 2013

What’s new in Chrome 30

Chrome 30 search by imageEven as the official announcement focuses more on the changes in for Android, the desktop version got a number of important updates as well. First, there is the ‘search by image’ feature integrated in the context menu: if previously you could immediately search for the selected word or sentence, now this is available for images too. While this is supposed to work with any search engine that supports image search, in the real world that basically means it’s restricted to – and even here it only works with the original search engine, not with custom Omnibox search. Also new in the image context menu: a ‘Print…’ option.

Speaking of search, the new variant of the New Tab page including a second Google search box is slowly creeping towards the stable channel; I’m still not sold on it and many power users agree, but apparently dumbing down the interface for users is more important than simplicity. I can only hope that the old version will still be an option – or that I find a more efficient extension to replace the default New Tab Page.